In their early years, the railroads were quite powerful companies, and with good reason. The railroad reduced travel time across the United States from days or months, to hours, in many cases. They brought supplies, payroll, and people from back east to the west quickly. The railroad did not come without some confusion, however. Even as late as the 1880s, most United States towns had their own system for keeping track of time, based on where the sun was at high noon. I had never given much thought to this, but I suppose it could have been a big mess, since the train’s arrival would be very mixed up, and the end result would be that the train might be scheduled to arrive in several places at once.
Because the railroads were quite powerful, they took it upon themselves to make a monumental change that would affect the entire nation, and Canada too. At exactly noon on this day in 1883, American and Canadian railroads broke the continent into four sections, and began using a system of time zones that we still use to this day, with very few changes made to it over the years. I’m sure there were people who did not like the new system much, but most people quickly embraced it, because their lives depended on the railroad in one way or another. The root of the problem they had was that they moved passengers and freight over the thousands of miles the line covered. With the varying times in towns along the route, the train ended up with dozens of different departure and arrival times. No one really knew when the train would arrive…except possibly the engineer. I’m sure that caused chaos in the train stations…especially in the bigger cities. These days, we have to be at the airport two hours early for flights, because of screening, so imagine that kind of a scenario in the small train stations of the old west. This scheduling nightmare had to be stopped, and time zones were the only logical way to do it.
With the use of time zones, rail transportation became far more efficient. The thing that seems rather odd, is that they didn’t go to the United States or Canadian governments to resolve the problem, and if the government at that time was as inefficient as our congress is right now, I can fully understand why they didn’t. Imaging waiting six years to make a decision concerning time and its vital role in rail travel. Something had to be done right away, and the railroad was just bold enough to do it. As it turned out, no one tried to stop them either. I suppose everyone could see just how logical their plan was, and no one complained. So, the railroad companies agreed to create four continental time zones, and that decision has changed the way we live to this day.
The lines they adopted to make those time zones were very close to the ones we have today. I’m sure that any changes are based on where towns began to fall along the zone lines. It wasn’t until as late as 1918 that Congress officially adopted the railroad time zones and put them under the Interstate Commerce Commission. Just imagine, if you will, if the people and the railroad had waited for Congress to act on this matter. There would have been 35 more years of unorganized and frustrating railroad travel. Something that should have revolutionized travel, would have been relegated to the stone age again, because of Congress’ lack of action. Even after the system was implemented and people finally had an organized schedule, that was relatively accurate…because you can’t predict accidents or weather related delays very well, Congress sat on their hands, and I suppose they operated the government on government time instead. In this writer’s opinion, the time zones were a wonderful idea, and have benefitted this nation very well since 1883. My family has a long history of working on the railroad, and that is a fact that I am very proud of.